1903 - Lady Mary Curzon
Official Visit of the Viceroy to Muscat
Muscat harbour is wonderfully picturesque: a cove walled by gigantic rugged yellow-brown rocks, which are topped by 16th century Spanish forts. These proceeded to pour forth salutes, which crashed and echoed against the harbour walls. The town, which faces the entrance of the harbour, was decorated with flags, suspended from the forts behind the Sultan's palace were great festoons, which looked most quaint. We anchored in the centre of the harbour, while the squadron ranged itself across the mouth; and instantly boats, barges, launches, and cutters began flying to and fro, as Colonel Kemball, the British representative in the Gulf had come to meet George [Curzon, Viceroy of India] on one ship, and Sir A. Hardinge, English Minister in Teheran, on another, and Major Cox, the Resident at Muscat, appeared in a pinnace. So we were busy watching arrivals, while the big deck aft was prepared for the official reception of the Sultan. It was hung with our gorgeous golden hangings, which we had brought with us to decorate the ship, as well as the great gold and silver chairs. Everyone seemed panting with excitement, the guns soared and banged, and the Staff flew about in uniform, and presently His Excellency the Admiral came off his flag-ship and made an official call, and was received by George on the gold hung deck. Next came Sir A. Hardinge, and at 12 the Sultan of Muscat was received in full state and sat on the silver throne. He came out in a launch with about a dozen retainers, and he is a fine-looking man with much grace of manner. Coffee and Sherbet were served to him, and Mouche and I peeped through the fringes of the golden hangings from an unseen corner at the rear. After the Sultan's call, George received the French and American Consuls, and at 1.30 he and the Admiral and most of the Staff went ashore to lunch at the British Residency. Mouche and I stopped on the ship, as it was fearfully hot, and we had occupation enough looking over the sides of the ship. After lunch at the Residency, George went to return the visit of the Sultan, walking, as it is only a step, through carpeted, decorated little alleys lined by the Sultan's soldiers. After the visit he was shewn the palace, which is undistinguished and partly composed of the old Spanish fort. 350 years ago Spain was supreme in these parts, but there is only the trace left now of the forts on the high hills, which are obsolete and picturesque, and fire salutes for British Viceroys in British men-of-war.
The Sultan of Muscat is subsidized by us, and his little kingdom is the scene of diplomatic struggles between France and England over the vexed question of a coaling station. Three years ago, after much fluttering in Foreign Office dovecots, Lord Salisbury granted France a coaling shed, and this has now given France and presumably Russia, the coveted privilege of coaling at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. We may repent it bitterly some day, if the long expected combat with Russia comes.
I stopped all day on the ship, but all the rest bustled to the shore, and the boats were very busy. In the evening, the Admiral, the Captains of the Fleet, the British Resident and his wife, Colonel Kemball and his wife, and Sir A. Hardinge all came to dinner, and we were 64 at two long tables on the deck. It was very hot indeed, and I can't say it was pleasant. After dinner all the officers of the fleet came to a party. The shore and the ships were illuminated and looked very brilliant. We had a stifling night, and sensible people slept on deck. It seemed that we had no sooner gone to bed before a gun went off, which fairly knocked us out of bed as it crashed and echoed round the rocks. It was only 5 o'clock, and we thought it most unnecessary; it was probably a signal for die Admiral to turn over in bed.
Thursday, November 19th. The decks of the Argonaut, our big Cruiser, had been hung with die golden hangings for the Durbar for the Sultan of Muscat and the Chiefs of Oman, as the big guns aft and the general appearance of might and fight were supposed to have a soothing effect on any Russian or French sympathies Muscatis might have. The heat was so great that I did not go to the Argonaut, but watched the Sheikhs and the British arrivals arriving in full dress from the peaceful decks of the Hardinge. All the staff had to wear full dress, and their sufferings in their tunics were pitiful. George wore his fullest dress, and fairly suffocated at the prospect of investing die Sultan with the GCIE and robing himself as Grand Master to conduct the ceremony. The Admiral’s guns announced his arrival on the Argonaut. Then Sir A. Hardinge went off; and as soon as the Sultan was seen to board the ship guns poured from everything that could shoot. George next set off in his launch, and die fusillade was appalling. I was left alone on die ship, as every creature had gone to the Argonaut, except Captain Armstrong who has a bad leg and can't even move from a couch, which is very trying while such rushing about is general. They were all back in an hour, and reported the Durbar as most impressive, The deck of the Argonaut looked very fine with the golden trappings, and the guns duly impressed the Sultan and the Sheikhs. The Sultan made a speech in which he referred to me as a pearl, and George replied gently laying down the important fact that Great Britain meant to retain her paramount position in these parts in order to protect her trade and her many Indian subjects trading in the Gulf and in Muscat. He then invested the Sultan, and sherbet was served in true Persian style to the hot Sheikhs and the roasted Staff. Mouche went to look on, looking most beautiful, and I hope I got the credit of her being thought the Lady Sahib.
After the Durbar the Sultan came to pay a private visit to George, and in the afternoon, to more guns, we sailed off, greatly pleased with our visit. All had gone off very well. We sat on the deck watching the rocky coast until darkness shut it out, and then we watched our fleet leading us like four phantom light-ships.
Bradley, John (ed.)
Lady Curzon’s India: Letters of a Vicereine